To observe that U.S. foreign policy over the last 25 years has not been a rousing success would be an exercise in understatement. America has been a “dangerous nation” — but not in the good sense imagined by those who favor an active, primacist approach to international politics. Instead, U.S. policies have been consistently dangerous — even injurious — to America’s own core interests of security, prosperity, and the maintenance of a liberal democracy at home. And they’ve frequently been harmful to those Washington has ostensibly been trying to help around the globe.
Recent American history shows a clear need for a new vision and new voices, steeped in greater realism and supported by the best evidence rather than well-intentioned but idealistic hopes. The American people — and even some prominent elites — are asking questions and challenging long-held assumptions that suggest they agree that we need a new vision and fresh perspectives. And the establishment is having a difficult time telling fathers and mothers from across the country why they should send their kids and their tax dollars to our “forever wars” in the Middle East or to new conflicts in countries on the other side of the globe.
The list of failures in recent U.S. foreign policy is unfortunately a long one. The Iraq War naturally ranks first. The war cost the lives of over 4,000 American troops, wounded tens of thousands more, and killed over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. It contributed to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. After a decade and a half of war and assistance, Iraq is by no means a model liberal democracy for the rest of the Middle East to emulate. Ironically, given that Iran is considered the biggest threat in the region to many of those who supported the war, Saddam Hussein’s ouster removed a balancer to Iranian influence and power. Moreover, witnessing the fate of Saddam (and Muammar Gaddafi) undoubtedly incentivized Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and stoked its desire for a credible deterrent. The Iraq War also cost the U.S. taxpayer over a trillion dollars, some of which we will be paying for a long time in the form of additional debt service and future veteran costs.
But Iraq isn’t the only failure that should force the United States to rethink its approach to grand strategy and how it engages the world. The Western intervention in Libya ended up creating chaos in that country and instability in the surrounding region. Civil conflict has reigned, terrorists flowed in while arms flowed out, and America’s counter-proliferation efforts were severely compromised by the perception that working with Washington on nukes would be met by a stab in the back. The list continues: failed and expensive nation-building in Afghanistan, morally-troubling support for the war in Yemen, the expansion of commitments in eastern Europe with little consideration of whether they helped make Americans safer or might needlessly antagonize Russia, and so on.
Unfortunately, the deleterious consequences of American foreign policy haven’t stayed abroad. Repeated deployments have strained and broken families while nearly a million veterans have registered disability claims. The financial costs have been enormous. Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the country several trillion dollars alone. The regular U.S. defense budget has eaten up hundreds of billions of dollars each year at a time when the United States faces mounting debt. These fiscal issues are not merely an economic matter. They represent a threat to American security given that the foundation of a strong defense is a strong economy. This is why former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said “Our national debt is our biggest national security threat.” Our approach to security also threatens to provoke domestic responses that undermine our civil liberties here at home.
Clearly American foreign policy isn’t working for Americans. But how should it change in a way that makes us safer and better off? What approach would make sense to the Americans who have to bear the cost of our foreign policy? Part of the answer is maintaining a strong national defense, one that is second to none since protecting our safety is the government’s most important job. But it requires showing much greater humility and restraint in the use of that military power. This entails a grand strategy focused laser-like on America’s vital interests with decision-makers internalizing the limits of what the United States can realistically achieve abroad and the mighty problem of unintended consequences. It also requires hard-thinking about the human and financial costs of America’s approach. It means being open to the world rather than fearful of it, thus embracing greater liberalization of trade and more peaceful engagement with other peoples. And it requires doing better at being an exemplar of liberal democracy here at home instead of hubristically trying to remake other societies.
We don’t have all the answers and Washington certainly doesn’t either. But we are beginning somewhere. The Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation — organizations I work for — are supporting scholars and scholarship in the fields of international relations, political science, and history. Our aim is to allow academics, analysts, and decision-makers to better understand the world and how to best secure American interests in the anarchic international system. In particular, we believe that research focused on issues of war and peace can contribute to better policy, especially if paired with outreach efforts to disseminate these ideas to both elites and the public. This is why we are pleased to not only support and elevate the voices of scholars like Barry Posen of MIT; Michael Desch, Eugene Gholz, and Joe Parent of Notre Dame; Eric Gartzke of UC-San Diego; and former professor and soldier Andrew Bacevich, but also to convene events here in Washington and around the country to broaden discussion about U.S. foreign policy. We are also eager to support and develop new voices on grand strategy and defense policy. This is why our giving on campus at places like Notre Dame, UC-San Diego, Tufts University, and Catholic University includes funding for graduate students and post-docs. Furthermore, our grants to policy institutions support new roles and research projects that would have a hard time getting funding from traditional sources less eager to challenge the status quo.
Unfortunately, the national conversation has been too narrow and too accepting of untested assumptions and stale ideas better suited for the Cold War than the world we live in today. The foreign policy establishment needs to be challenged if we are going to avoid repeating the failures we have witnessed over the last two decades. The country needs a broader set of foreign policy thought leaders — comprising new institutions, academics, policy experts, public intellectuals, policymakers, and others — capable of challenging the status quo and offering well-grounded and robust policy changes. We want to help build that. We welcome anyone who wants to contribute to this effort and invite a diversity of perspectives to participate.
The United States needs a new vision for American foreign policy. Let’s not take the easy path that the narrow elite consensus in Washington offers us. Let’s find a fresher perspective given that our current strategy has us on the rocks.
Will Ruger is the Charles Koch Institute Vice President for Research and Policy.
Image: U.S. Army/Rachel Diehm